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Pinellas yet again appears to escape storm's worst

Another soggy, sloppy storm toppled trees and downed power lines around Pinellas County on Sunday, but once again, residents dodged the worst from a hurricane that pounded much of the rest of Florida.

"We've had some flooding and some damage," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. "But we are incredibly blessed when you compare us to other parts of the state."

Wind gusts of more than 70 mph were recorded around the county and up to 4 inches of rain was expected to fall. But as of Sunday evening, reports of damage from a weakened Tropical Storm Jeanne were sporadic.

A fire broke out in a warehouse on 3800 47th Ave. N in Lealman about 10:25 a.m. The building's owner said he heard an electrical transformer explode moments before the blaze ignited. No one was hurt, but firefighters struggled against Jeanne.

"The winds were gusting," said Lealman Fire Chief Richard Graham. "They were the highest winds I ever tried to fight a fire with."

About 90 traffic signals in St. Petersburg and 60 in the rest of the county were out of service.

Power lines drooped throughout the county and tree limbs skidded across roadways. The heavy rains left large puddles on the road, causing several car crashes as motorists slid on the wet pavement, said Johnny Harris, a St. Petersburg police spokesman.

In Pinellas Park, flooding was evident in yards and pastures. Ducks took advantage of the weather, floating in front of the usually dry Ronald C. Forbes Recreation Center on 94th Avenue N.

There were reports of damage to mobile home parks in Gulfport and Tarpon Springs, and 49th Street was closed for part of the afternoon when debris from a nearby roof landed on the road.

A navy blue awning blew down near the south entrance of the venerable Don CeSar Beach Resort. Hotel staffers cordoned off doorways with rope and signs reading, "Danger. High wind. Do not open door."

The tops of most of the resort's white lanterns lay strewn about the grass in the courtyard, and spanish tiles from the roof lay splintered near a set of French doors facing the Gulf of Mexico.

At Pass-a-Grille on Sunday evening, waves slammed against the seawall and spit sand in the faces of visitors. Dennis and Liz Birchard of St. Petersburg enjoyed a windy walk along the beach with their two daughters and their friend.

"We love the beach," Dennis Birchard said, clothes plastered to his frame. "We come to the beach as much as we can. Of course, it's not a great day to get sun."

It was unclear whether Jeanne had eroded the beaches because waves were still pounding the shore late Sunday.

Around the county, the already saturated ground proved too unstable for many trees, including the 50-foot maple tree in the front yard of Sherri Thompson's Disston Heights home.

The tree left a 6{-foot deep hole in the yard and struck Thompson's roof, breaking a truss and sending rain into her living room.

"I'm devastated," said Thompson, 48, a restaurant comptroller who shares the home with her two sons, husband and 82-year-old mother. "I tried to find motel rooms for us, and I can't find any available."

Nearby, motorists were blocked from traveling 62nd Street N near 37th Avenue after another tree snapped. Neighbors said some motorists drove into residents' yards to get around the obstacle.

At 6 p.m. Sunday, Pinellas officials lifted a mandatory evacuation order for mobile home residents that lasted less than 24 hours. Shelters, however, would remain open until 5 p.m. today for those who needed them.

About 248,500 county residents were without power as of Sunday evening, according to county spokeswoman Marcia Crowley. But after three previous storms, many had already devised ways to carry on without electricity.

Janice Alexander had been pressure-cooking pinto beans in her Pinellas Point home when the power flickered a few times and went out for good.

So she and her husband, Mitch, fired up the grill to heat up a precooked Cajun chicken breast to accompany the beans.

"We'll just warm it up on the grill," Alexander said, "and we're set."

Times staff writers Michael Sandler, Megan Scott, Catherine Shoichet, Anne Lindberg, Leanora Minai and Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report.

ST. PETERSBURG: Jackson Willis stands on the ground once occupied by a large oak tree that blew over Sunday afternoon on 19th Avenue NE near the corner of Poplar Street. "We are just huge tree fans, this is not a happy day," said Whitney Cohen, who lives next door.

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